Heliocentric Music
Reflections on Challenges faced by Electronic Music and Rave Culture today.


#neoliberalism, #music, #rave, #subculture, #afrofuturism, #retromania, #non

Before founding becoming.press, we used to run a record label and fanzine for Rave Culture in Cyprus (Crossdressing Diogenes), and one thing we covered more than anything else, was an event called “The Gathering” by our friends at Honest Electronics. Having come from the UK, this way of organizing and building events DIY in the middle of nowhere, with no permissions, no funding, nothing but animus, a soundsystem and some shipping palettes was quite fresh. — A!kira

It was especially exciting to me because at the time, I had just finished writing my MA thesis which dwelled on the politics of rave, and whether the body of academic rave-oriented literature that flourished during the 90s and 00s was still relevant to Cyprus. To summarise, the criteria that positioned rave as anticapitalist or antihegemonic during the 90s does not seem to describe the reality we entered into during the last two decades of Neoliberalism.
           For example, one commendation of rave culture from the likes of Simon Reynolds, Jeremy Deller or Jeremy Gilbert typically explored how the DIY organization of raves blurred a sacred line between work/play that Late-Stage Capitalism depended upon — to pay your way through a kind of playful take on manual labour may have once seemed as radical as any Labordian declassification (in the sense of deliberately declassifying roles, of having the nurses clean the chickens and the kitchen staff doing insulin shots for patients). If you’re both working and playing at the same time, you’re both on the clock and off the clock — that is not capitalism as we once knew it, and there are really a lot of other examples of how raving was once so threatening to the culture of capitalism that the State declared war against it.      
           Such simple examples as the Monday night club “Spectrum”, founded by Paul Oakenfold in 1988 (Generation Ecstasy, 1999; p61), where workers would effectively disrupt the sacred productivity cycle — Monday is sacred to Capitalism, it is the day where you pick yourself up and convince yourself to commit another week to exploited labour, so to treat Monday like Friday night, to careless about how productive you are Tuesday->Thursday — it is not hard to see how this attitude was seen as Sacreligious.  
           Something changed in the last two decades however, and sociologists who look at the previous body of countercultural literature are often left feeling that 90s essays from Graham St. John or Philip Tagg, and so on, describes a world that no longer exists. What is really unexpected, and quite concerning, is that many of the countercultural or anticapitalist aspects of 90s rave culture are now very much part of Capital. Working whenever you want/can, feeling as though we are always at work, and feeling pressure that we are supposed to love work, as if the vibe of the epoch is to accept endless work and try to see it as play. Working for access instead of for salary may once have sounded liberating but now it sounds suspicious. It is not that rave culture was inherently neoliberal back in the 90s, it is something about the nature of capital that enabled it to assimilate these aspects — it had to assimilate them to survive. We might argue that rave culture was a host for antihegemonic desire, being constructed out of an ideology that countered the norm, so it can be said to reflect the emergence of a growing body of subjects who between them agree to disagree with the State and the established norms. That revolutionary desire was simply assimilated, deterritorialized by Capital.
           To skip ahead, the conclusion I made at some point was that there was nothing intrinsically revolutionary about rave, the revolutionary or subversive aspects of rave were contingent and entangled with the sociopolitical moment in time — as the moment turns towards something else, rave culture lost its political potency because it didn’t change with the times. As one friend pointed out, rave culture became reactionary where it was once revolutionary, with the entire rave industry being driven by almost conservative attitudes towards form and purpose — either many ravers didn’t notice that their actions had been neutralised, or they refuse to accept that their beloved forms and practices became the very norm they were once against, and developed a begrudging conservative rejectionist attitude toward change (reactionary). Today, the main people involved in making rave culture  nostalgic/reactionary are the old veterans of the scene. Those DJs who were once iconic heroes of the rave are now the ones tasked with ensuring that rave never evolve, and never again become revolutionary. The most successful DJs are turned against the scene by capital in a dynamic that we have already described: at some point, a machine can be reprogrammed and that machine will start producing a different outcome, and the whole game of keeping Capitalism afloat is to find whatever produces against it, and hijack it in favour of itself.
           We recently had this in Cyprus with a festival called Beonix, which appeared at random with a million dollar line-up full of Carl Cox and so on. This event was framed as the first real techno event in Cyprus, yet it was undeniably just a commoditized celebrity parade, pay fifty euros to see Carl Cox and make a video for instagram. Yet, a lot of underground DJs jumped at the chance to get on the line-up. As a festival it was the quintessential neoliberal commoditized electronic music event, it was a superb representation of the kind of “rave” that may look on the surface vaguely similar to a rave party, and have the exact same DJs on the line-up, but has absolutely no connection or no interest in the subversive history that once gave techno its platform. It is just another institution that became a victim of its own success, as a once radical movement grew in size, money started to come in, and those involved simply became more conservative as their attention turned away from radical actions towards managing funds.
           If the challenges we face have changed, if the social, political and economic reality has changed around us, there would need to be tactical and targeted changes made for rave to stay subversive. This is quite difficult to reason with however, as there is something intrinsic about cultural movements that make them difficult to “reorganize”. Rave culture coalesced around emergent desires, and when those desires are appropriated or territorialized by Capital, the movement loses the glue that originally bound it, and like the moment where cops show up and shut down the rave, the collective disperses, and the people basically never see each other again until the next rave — no rave, no community, all the social connections melt, the social gravity simply disappears — such a movement cannot simply reorganize, all that can be done is to wait for the next antihegemonic movement to naturally coalesce out of a newly emergent collective desire that is entangled with the new current status-quo.
           It has been almost twenty or thirty years since the thing that rave was contesting against evolved beyond recognition, with the timeline suggesting that the global rave movement was slowly brought into submission between the symbolic events of Britain’s 1992 Criminal Justice Act, and the 2008 Global Financial crash. The world that emerged from the 2008 crash was officially Neoliberalism as it was always intended to be, and where people here in Cyprus used to say that “Cyprus was 20 years behind”, it’s fair to say that whichever states Cyprus was supposedly lacking “behind” have been stagnant (in regard to Neoliberalism’s flattening of time or erasure of the future) for so long that Cyprus has actually caught up — it is an idyllic neoliberal state like any other as “half the population” works for the government, all the immigrants are visibly integrated (you see them everywhere) but trapped behind insurmountable restrictions that prevent them from actual social integration (they are simply not allowed to participate in society beyond abusive and highly exploitative labour such as “unskilled labour”, “labour for those who do not speak Greek”.) etc.
           In this twenty year period, it doesn’t seem that rave culture really recovered, and we observe this in the narrative of such players as Achim Szepanski and Mille Plateaux (see here). We said before that those who were raving politically, those who participated in the antihegemonic practices of raving had to kind of accept that hegemony changed, and accept that what made rave rave had dissipated somewhat. Mille Plateaux’s story is indicative of this, that at some point it seemed necessary to just move on from the music and the rave if one was to resist becoming reactionary: the record label, Mille Plateaux, faded out of existence for a decade.
           The obvious intervention here might be to ask that if rave culture was organized around desires which have been assimilated, and has therefore been left in a kind of zombie state where it continues to operate as if normal but without any mind, without any agency, without any affectivity, then ravers must simply do the same as Szepanski did, to move on to the next battle. To keep doing the same rave culture after the “defeat” would just be reactionary, it would be to dwell on something irrelevant, or to dwell on the problem of how to maintain power.
           Yet, what really drives the perpetual scholarly interest in rave culture is its presentation of the role of music in political “war”. Somewhat auspiciously, after a decade of inactivity, Mille Plateaux did eventually come back to music, as if the question itself regarding the role of music had come back around, a new insurgency of renewed faith.
           There is something about music, there always has been, and there always will be. If you are a reader of the critical theory canon, you may even have noticed that music is treated with a privilege by the likes of Nietzsche, Adorno, Derrida and so on, and this special treatment underpins the majority of my work as a philosopher of music and sociologist of music. Music is held by many of “our heroes” as the one thing that cannot be reduced to an image, it is the one thing that positivistic discourse and metrics cannot touch. My interpretation of this, in the context of hyperreality, is that music, as that which is irreducible to image, is like dark matter — it is this absolutely untouchable substance that capitalist hegemony cannot fully win over. Nietzsche wrote that music terrorizes rationality, and Derrida, while working with Nietzsche’s notion of “the listening eye”, claims that the ear is the negative organ, it is the sensory organ that betrays positivism, and for that reason it has been overlooked by the likes of Kant.
           I interpreted these themes when scripting the manifestos of becoming.press, and it is within these manuscripts that I first use the term Negativism, a kind of cute concept that plays off of Positivism: where positivism concerns itself with that which can be measured, negativism concerns itself with that which cannot. This regards the virtual, the immaterial, and the absent. These themes are important precisely because of a particular Deleuze, Guattari, and Baudrillard-inspired reading of the present crises we face. Words like hyperindividualism, hyperreality, precarity, and control societies paint a picture of a world reduced to Images (to representations), where collective power is neutralised through the atomisation and dissection of society. It is within this specific context that music strikes me as unchallenged in its antihegemonic potential. What is more striking, is that music remains as terrorizing today as it ever was, despite the situation changing, music remains equally potent for the same reasons. As something that is only accessible through the ears and through listening, it must necessarily resist the grasp of logocentric or rationalistic discourse, forever being unexplainable and therefore ever disproving any totalising rationalism. As long as we can hear music, and experience it as we love to do so, and in a way that moves us, there will always be a question mark at the end of any positivistic thesis — it is the inescapable negative.
           Hegemony has only one choice when it comes to music, which is to control what music is heard. I would not be particularly conservative to say that “not all music hits the spot” in such a way that its affect on us could be called revolutionary or antihegemonic (if it caused us to temporarily trip, or to temporarily see the illusion as illusion, to see through the trick etc.). There really is garbage music, treacherous music that betrays music, music that actively works against the value of music by presenting itself as nihilistic and inaffective and therefore presenting music as nihilistic and inaffective. If there were to be an overabundance of music that presents itself and music as inaffective, that would be enough to convince a public who is only exposed to such a sound that music is inaffective — at least until that moment when music appears to jump out of itself and shake you. This admittedly sounds a lot like Adorno’s pessimism about popular music, where he feared that dark forces would overproduce terrible music and forever obscure good music, which was theoretically good for its ability to affect positive change rather than for its aesthetics.
           There is music that can affect positive change on people, and that music is not any one specific genre. There is a near impossible challenge of honing in on what makes different music hit different people in different ways — someone can be a die hard 90s Hip Hop fan and still be thrown into some outerbody experience by hearing some random Bob Dylan song on a bad speaker in the metro station, which is reminiscent of Deleuze & Guattari’s discussion of Virginia Wolfe’s life-changing experience of seeing a particular dog on a particular road, on a particular day, at a particular moment in her life etc. Yet, I would like to argue in agreement with Adorno, that fundamentally the issue today is that there is a special kind of bad music that exists across all genre-forms, and it is that bad music which is over-represented on all platforms, and it is that over-represented bad music in all its forms, which effectively covers up the “real potential” music has. The “general public” are only exposed to this music, and so for the majority of people music has no ability to do more than evoke emotional responses that are in favor of capitalism — an example of which is nostalgic yearning.
           The difference is that unlike Adorno, I would not say that it is simply popular music that is bad and covers up the real shit like Jazz or Classical — I do not particularly like the majority of Jazz or Classical, but thanks to the influences from devoted Jazz friends, there are many of Jazz-oriented performances which have evoked within me that break-out moment. Adorno would refer to this break-out moment as Jilting, and today the metaphor still works, we need jilting out of the hyperreal for just a moment to see through the illusions, and the only thing that can reveal an Image to someone who knows only Images, is something that is not an Image. The most durable non-image is music, as Brian Schroeder states (here):

“Music, it appears, best approximates the unchanging change of eternal recurrence, the ceaseless differentiating flow of existence, whose terror lies in its refusal to be reduced into an image, whether phenomenal or conceptual”.

Somewhere here lies the key to the romanticism that binds my work to the work of Adorno despite our big differences — music is the key to the problem, and I sincerely believe that romantic idea that music has power. It just seems that for music to be powerful it has to be detached from the forms that it is presented to us in, whether that be Chart music or the entire notion of Music as a noun.
           This line of work is, then, entangled with Sun Ra, who famously said:

“The chaos on this planet is due to the music that musicians are playing, that they are forced to play, by some who just think about money, and don’t realise that music is a spiritual language that represents the people of Earth.”

For Ra, we are also overexposed to manipulative signals that are disseminated through TV and so on, and that this inaffective music, or this music that betrays music is the key driving force behind the crises we face.
           Some may say that Adorno and Sun Ra are talking about Techno, or EDM, and so on, and for the most part this could be partially correct — there is so much music produced today that most passionate music fans would agree that finding powerful, affective music is a needle-in-a-haystack situation, but all would conclusively agree that there still are bangers out there.  
            Much of this discussion also relates to Simon Reynolds’ idea of Retromania, through which we find a reading of Nostalgia as a kind of capitalistic-emotion, something that capitalism feeds off of. One criticism Reynolds gives of contemporary music culture is that it has an obsession with digging through the past four decades of music in search of the one or two obscure bangers they can find; a new form of hipsterism driven by the very idea that if you just keep searching through your own history you’ll continually find something that excites you. It is not difficult to see why some would here recognise Reynolds’ entanglement with CCRU and Mark Fisher. Where Fisher, in largely restating Baudrillard, would claim the dimension of the future has disappeared, Reynolds would claim that we have simply turned our backs to the future, in a nostalgia driven obsession with digging through the past. It is a feedback loop because the very music that digging hipsters begin to cherish are ones that evoke the necessarily nostalgic feeling to justify and drive the continual digging.  
               To bring together some of the threads here, the question is then how do we conceptualise music that both maintains what worked about rave culture whilst ensuring that the desire which ultimately drives the enactment of the music event be something that naturally coalesces in response to newly emergent limitations that people collectively desire to respond to. There was something about the rave situation, of getting out of capitalism and being exposed to radical sounds that, when combined with ecstatic states of consciousness, could offer someone a subjective breakthrough, yet it is undeniable that people feel as though this has been largely lost, and that the pre-established forms of raving had been disarmed, and so on. Rendered in rhetoric: is it possible for a sincere antihegemonic movement to emerge again in the form of rave culture, or would any resemblance of rave culture reflect a nostalgic undertone that ultimately waits to betray the movement, a kind of capitalist spy or no-uniform police lurking around the rave.
           Lets look at it from a slightly different perspective. It has been said that many things that made rave culture antihegemonic were assimilated, but that is not to say that there aren’t things about rave culture that remain antihegemonic. Thus it is tempting to say that we should just obsessively search for the thing about rave in the 90s that made it affective and try to see if that is what remains affective today, but then there is the lurking problem of potentially falling into a nostalgic wormhole, forever lost digging through memories as if chasing their first MDMA trip.
           Instead, we might recognise that the concept of going out of somewhere, or to somewhere, to communally participate in music-oriented ritualism is hardly unique to rave culture, it is a trope rather borrowed from a long and very pan-human habit of using music in ecstatic ritualism. To many Technoshamanists of the 90s, rave was just the modernist european form of the same cultural practice that extended back thousands of years. To those technoshamanists, it was this practice that the State ultimately wanted to ban, and it banned this practice through the banning of rave — if such cultural practices were accused of driving progressive politics throughout human history, then one can see why some would be concerned about what would happen to a society that lost its music ritualism or whose musical ritualism had been territorialized in such a way that would best be elucidated with the metaphor of a machine repurposed for a different outcome — it may appear the same, but it ultimately has a different function in service of a different goal.
           Examples of this kind of situation could be found in the commercial club context, a capital-form of the parties and ideas that defined rave culture, or perhaps in various purifications of rave ideology or certain “extreme musics”. An example of the latter might be the hyperdrive of late-stage rave culture, following the parties religiously, every day, every weekend, from after party to preparty to party to after party. When one breaks out of the habit for a moment, one may see how this culture is like taking ecstatic music ritualism and mixing it with capital — a non-stop desiring machine that at some point is reprogrammed away from its original intended productive outcome towards a kind of manic production of something else entirely.
           Something that often trips me out, in the most pleasant sense, is the idea found in Hindu Raga theory that I might shorthand as heliocentric music. It sounds obvious enough; we are heliocentric, we revolve around the sun, literally and metaphorically, our existence revolves around the energy, heat, light and radiation of the sun — we evolved in waters heated to the perfect temperature by an accidental relative proximity to the sun. So why does the idea of heliocentric music, or music that revolves around the sun sound so alien, or even pretentious?
           Firstly, it has a lot to do with the West’s notion of sovereign individualism which demands that everything revolves around the Self, secondly and a lot to do with consumeristic instant gratification because everything must immediately grant a specific kind of reward to be worth our attention. It could even seem conservative, to say that you should wait to play a song at the right hour… yet, isn’t that really the magic? Timing is everything, we wait to drop the right track at just the right moment… or it could seem conservative to say “don’t play this at that hour”. Yet, under the influence of 500mg, at sunrise, even the most liberal subject may agree that there are some rules about what is acceptable to play at that moment.
           A third point could simply be to say that we are clearly not in touch with the idea that we are a part of bigger cycles, our inability to really affect climate change shows that we must somehow feel disconnected from the greater ecology around us, to think about music in terms of the sun is not really within our cultural interest right now, our attention is very much elsewhere.
           In certain moments where sensitivities are extremely heightened, and the light exposes all to each other, the “real underground DJ” knows that they play a very important role in making sure people feel safe and loved. You must, at that moment, fill the air with love (which doesn’t have a genre) or you will hurt your friends. Perhaps this is more how the Hindustani traditions could be seen, of keeping certain sounds or certain ideas about sound, for certain times, you can effectively do what you want, whenever you want, but if you are sensitive to your loved ones, and sensitive to the dancefloor-without-organs, then there must be discipline in  creativity, both dignified and dignifying. This is not meant to be read as didactic, it is rather just an explication of typical underground DJ rhetoric, where there are non-musicological rules about what should be played at any given time in relation to a backdrop of ideas about safe but meaningful tripping, drug use, cultural sensitivities and idiosyncrises — all it really says is that you can play what you want but you are obliged to care about what exactly we are all doing here together. If the purpose of us all being here together is shared collectively between DJ and dancers, then that is what need be cared about by all the participants including the DJs. It is in that sense not so much about individual expression but about collective experience. It is in this sense that rave culture exhibits potential for antihegemonic practices, as arguably within the context of individualistic hyperreality, there is something interesting about the idea of a DJ not attempting to represent their identity through a performance of their own interests, but rather to perform out of the interests of a collective they are supposedly in touch with — the latter is neither about representing anything, nor is it about individual identity, it is rather functional and collective oriented.
           Admittedly, at this point is begins to sound like a reading of The Beneficiaries lyrics, although that is said without regret, as that Afrofuturesque, Spoken Word meets ecstatic, minimalist polyrhythmic drumming experience is without a doubt an exhibition of the kind of understanding of music that I relate to. From The Crystal City is Alive:

“Some call it math, we call it truth.

We decided drawing outside the line might be the road map to the next dimension. A tribe of multi-versed mouths and similar noses and almond-shaped third-eye wisdom.

Rhythm rains dreams from our pores. In the specs of our speaker box limbs. We become freedom of speech. We become the music we eat, love.

Movement becomes the language of the fantastic. Particles in unison, proper agile aliens of funk.

An amplituhedron leading us back to the jewel. An evolution of humanity. Forward is the ability to push back. Boundaries invisible. Emancipation of labels & gravity; letting go our only way of figuring out which planets become our changing universe, our compass facing home. Civilian travel cannot accommodate intentional genius traveling at the speed of light.

It will not be easy carrying sound system inside your womb. Birth is noisy via satellite. Still. Remain still.”

So, within this style of language, we can play with ideas like: even if a DJ is listening with one ear to the sound of the system, and listening with the other to something on a headphone, they can still use their third ear to listen to the rhythm of the earth and the sun as they are flung through spacetime in a wild sinusoidal trajectory. Where once the question was “can you DJ with vinyl”, we joke now “can you beat-match an LFO to the rhythm of the earth?”.  In light of this, I started to think about how “annual” is just a description of a rhythm. Yearly crotchets, where one semibreve returns every 4 years.
           This ultimately brings us to The Gathering and Honest Electronics. Having given a lot of attention to the scene here (my MA Thesis was focused on underground electronic music in Cyprus) and having lived and participated in the scene here for around 7 years now, I have had a lot of time to watch the unfolding of this quite enigmatic record label. It was their first Gathering that took hold of me, it was at that event that triggered my decision to leave the UK at 23 and move the Cyprus, and I have been here attending those since they started. It would be at least a half truth to say that I have been here 6 years after graduating, watching Honest Electronics as if it was some rare bird that I have an unnatural obsession with. I don’t simply like what they do, I care about their existence, I have an emotional attachment to the continuation of it, and having had quite a lot of time to think about why, I have some confidence in my understanding.
           Despite being co-founded by a designer, I don’t think Honest Electronics was designed, I feel that I have observed that it is something that has coalesced naturally out of shared needs, it is a loose collective that converged without intention that learned very well how to co-organize. After all, it is not to say that there wasn’t a lot of effort put in by the people to get organized, but the creation of the label was more of a decision to consolidate what was already there and to move from being a group of like-minded individuals and into an organized collective. It started as a record label, but now the record label seems like just one side, some auxiliary to what it actually is. The record label was just a kind of first trial on how this naturally coalesced group who had come together through a shared desire to basically hang out and do music together might establish a new subculture within Nicosia. Within the context of Cyprus this atleast appears to mirror the emergence of what we call rave culture in the 80s and 90s, people deciding for themselves to come together to do something differently, to collectively surpass limitations of expression or what people are exposed to.
           It is a loose collective in the sense that people come and go, people flutter in and out of sight. There is no way to really be “in it” neither to be “out”. More than anything, it is the yearly meeting (festival) that holds the collective together — to some extent you’re in the collective if the Gathering seems like an unmissable event of your year. The festival itself, the form it takes is highly indicative of what is being said about natural coalescence and responding to the needs of the people and so on. The community who make up Honest Electronics contains more than just DJs, and so the large presence of non-DJ or non-dancefloor music responds to that need, for it to be a music even that reflects those who make it, it couldn’t just be DJs and dancefloors, yet they have had a lot of success in asking the question: how then, do we use what we’ve got to create the experience we all need?
           In regard to the aforementioned hyperdrive of capital, there is something quite refreshing about the idea of annual rhythm. To gather once a year to really rave. To time your music to the beat of the sun. To teach your body over a decade to expect to end up in the same coordinates, both in the sense of geographical location and psychosomatic location. We have gathered for 8 years in this way, some for longer. My body waits for it, and I respond to it no differently to getting out of bed at 6am for work. This year I was asked to play a morning set, and to help organize the promotions and build a website, and that is what I will set all the spare time I have to — other years I have helped with sound engineering, or with making falafels, or have been assigned as a volunteer to help with clean up. It’s a situation of “whatever you need”, whatever is necessary to do this.
           For the last decade I worked in a coffee shop, my job was to be awake before everyone else in order to have coffee ready for them when they wake up. Likewise with the rave, even before the sound system crew are set in motion, the virtual processes of the yearly gathering begin long before other processes. Months before the peak of the rave experience, the ecstatic moment or union, we are sitting in meetings, establishing terms and agreements about who should do what and why — this is not to undermine the magic, it is just that the experience of the “peak”, that amazing trip and moment of ecstasy is engineered by ravers, it is our art form. For many OG Technoshamanists, it is the Adornian moment of jilting that is our art piece, and to give anyone that experience requires perfect timing, from the first meetings to the DJ’s beat matching. It can take all year, and a lot of timing to get it right, to ensure people’s safety, to get everything in the right place to allow the magic to happen. It goes without saying that once a year is not a prescription, it is just an example of a way of thinking about the kind of music culture we want — there is a spectrum of potential between desperate consumerism or disciplined cynicism (in the sense of Diogenes and Antisthenes, of embodying the outcome you desire and use your life to push reality in that direction).          
           If there is such a thing as an antidote to excess, perhaps it is not to play minimal sounds all the time, as I once believed, but to play sounds minimally, to wait for the moment to play the sound. Moderation and restraint are not exactly popular words today but they are undeniably inimical to capital.
           ...To gather once a year, to align your cycles with the big cycle, to beat-match to the universe.. to wait for the moment.